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GOP senators demand answers from defense secretary about ‘chain of command crisis’

“It is mind-boggling that the secretary of defense feels comfortable breaking that regular communication on purpose,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin holds a press conference at the end of a two-day meeting of NATO Defense ministers at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 15, 2023. Credit: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin holds a press conference at the end of a two-day meeting of NATO Defense ministers at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 15, 2023. Credit: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.

The 12 Republicans on the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services demanded “immediate clarification” from Lloyd Austin, the U.S. secretary of defense, in a letter on Wednesday about the “chain of command crisis” amid his ongoing hospitalization.

In the letter, the senators asked about the timeline “related to your incapacitation, how the department interpreted the laws and regulations regarding the performance of duties and responsibilities of the secretary of defense during a vacancy and the department’s views on how it complied with statutory congressional notification requirements from Dec. 22, 2023, to the present day.”

Austin’s doctors stated on Tuesday that the secretary underwent surgery for prostate cancer on Dec. 22 and was placed under general anesthesia. Austin was released from the hospital the next day but developed an infection and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Jan. 1. He was transferred to the hospital’s intensive-care unit on Jan. 2. Though the infection cleared, Austin remains in the hospital. His doctors said the cancer was detected early with an “excellent” prognosis.

That announcement was the first public statement about the medical cause of Austin’s hospitalization. U.S. President Joe Biden and Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, were first informed that Austin was incapacitated on Jan. 4, the White House has said, and Congress and the Pentagon press corps first learned about it on Jan. 5.

Austin’s failure to properly transfer responsibilities to subordinates or inform the White House during his two incapacitations is a disturbing deviation from how the second-in-command of the United States armed forces is supposed to hand over responsibilities, experts told JNS.

“Given that the secretary of defense is not only a member of the president’s cabinet but is in the chain of command for uses of military force, including nuclear release, the secretary should have told the president and the national security advisor that he was under medical treatment,” Kori Schake, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told JNS.

“Everybody should have been told when he got taken to the hospital,” added Schake, a former staffer at the Departments of Defense and State. “It’s crazy that the president and the national security advisor had to find out several days later that he was in the hospital.”

‘Mind-boggling’

Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who also serves on the U.S. Strategic Command Advisory Group, told JNS that the U.S. military command system is designed around the president being in communication with the secretary of defense, and that the system should not be bypassed lightly.

“The president of the United States in very extreme circumstances can still give orders and get around a secretary of defense that he cannot locate, but that is a dire emergency,” she said. “This country goes to great, great lengths to make sure that the secretary of defense and the president of the United States can be in regular and immediate communication, regardless of where either of them are.”

“It is mind-boggling that the secretary of defense feels comfortable breaking that regular communication on purpose,” she added.

Wednesday’s letter includes leading questions, in which the Senate Republicans suggest some of the things that Austin could have done to inform the president of his incapacitation and fully hand over command authority to Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary, who was then vacationing in Puerto Rico.

“Was the National Airborne Operations Center, or an aircraft with similar communications capabilities, dispatched to the deputy secretary’s location?” they asked. “If so, did the deputy secretary of defense have access to the full and necessary suite of communications capabilities to fulfill the entirety of the authorities she assumed upon the secretary’s incapacitation? If so, which staff were with the deputy secretary of defense in Puerto Rico?”

A U.S. drone strike targeting an Iran-backed Iraqi militia leader on Jan. 4 also raises questions about the exact authorities that were handed over to Hicks, according to Schake, of AEI.

“The White House rushed to say the decision had already been made, but there’s a serious question about what was the line of authorization for this,” she said. “If the deputy secretary was on vacation in Puerto Rico, who was authorized to say, ‘Yes, commence military activity?’”

Hicks had been given “certain operational responsibilities” per a Pentagon spokesman, but hadn’t reportedly been informed Austin was incapacitated. 

“The secretary made bad choices. It speaks ill of the secretary’s relationship with his deputy,” Schake said. “He had the opportunity to allow the first woman to be acting secretary of defense for the few days he was in the hospital, and this secretary of defense in this administration chose not to do that, chose instead to pretend nothing was going on when he was in an ICU.”

Lloyd Austin
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a joint statement on Oct. 13, 2023 at the Kirya in Tel Aviv with Yoav Galant, the Israeli minister of defense. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Taking a back seat

The White House and the Pentagon have said that they are reviewing Austin’s lack of disclosure about his medical condition, but Politico reported on Monday that Biden doesn’t plan to ask Austin to resign, nor would he accept his resignation if offered.

Not knowing his defense chief was in the hospital for four days might be a partial reflection of how Biden prioritizes cabinet departments, Heinrichs said. She added that it’s impossible for a defense secretary to stay out of the loop for long, given the day-to-day importance of the role, and that Austin had the reputation at U.S. Central Command of being an engaged leader.

“This administration came in really trying to make the point that they wanted the State Department to lead, and the Department of Defense to take a backseat,” Heinrichs said. “That is a messaging point that they’re trying to solve things. Obviously, it doesn’t seem to me to be working.”

The chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jack Reed (D-R.I.) stated on Monday that there needs to be “transparency and accountability” to ensure that “this lack of disclosure must never happen again.” 

But Schake told JNS that this episode is unlikely to result in reforms to the Pentagon’s already-detailed and rigorous handover procedures, which Austin appears to have ignored.

“I think it’s likelier to do political damage to the Biden administration, who portray themselves as level-headed, responsible, do-things-by-the-books actors in national security,” she said. “This looks like a clown car.”

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